Denver's bike-loving mayor hopes to get his constituents out of their cars and onto one of 500 or so cherry-red bicycles now parked at stands in 40 locations around the Mile High City, where for a rental fee they await riders to take them on errands, off to meet friends for lunch, or for some sightseeing.
The bike-sharing program, which debuted on Earth Day, is the country's second such offering. Like its cousin in Washington, D.C. -- which harbors 120 bikes at 10 locations around the capital -- Denver's B-cycle is operated as a partnership. In Denver, a nonprofit manages the $3.2-million effort with quasi-governmental agencies and business sponsors.
Bike sharing is just now catching on in North America. But there are more than 50 cities in Europe and Asia with such offerings, including the world's biggest bike-sharing program, Velib, in Paris, where some 200,000 bikes await riders at 1,500 stations. (For other examples, check out this bike-sharing world map -- including links to U.S. cities that are working on similar programs.)
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who is running for governor in Colorado, hopes the new program, together with an effort to improve the city's bike lanes, will help him increase the percentage of bicycling commuters in his city from 1.6% today to 10% by August 2018.
"Denver's vision is to change the culture of transportation -- from moving automobiles to moving people," the bike-sharing nonprofit proclaims on its website.
But will people get out of their cars and use the three-speed bikes with the Dorothy-like wire baskets perched on the handlebars?Denver is home to many fit people, to be sure, but they are used to driving. (I've seen this firsthand; I grew up there and visit often.) Driving there to run errands, or go out to eat, is still faster than jumping on a bike. Parking is still fairly easy to find, although it does get crowded during the day in the city's hot spots like downtown and the Cherry Creek area.
But officials hope that the ease of checking out a bike, and the chance to save money on gas, will trump habit and prompt residents to try out the system. But is the system for tourists, or for residents?
"The goal is to offer residents and visitors an alternative form of transportation that prevents air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions," said Brent C. Tongco, a spokesman for the city and county of Denver,"is good exercise, and helps people save money that would otherwise be used on gas and parking."
The fee structure is certainly skewed toward local users, who can purchase an annual membership online for $65 that allows them to access bikes with a card they use to check out a velo whenever they need one. Seven-day memberships are also available for $20, or monthly plans for $30. Checking out a bike for the day costs $5.
After buying a membership, riders must pay usage fees. The first 30 minutes are free, with an hour clocking in at $1. But once a rider gets to 91 minutes the fee is $6.60, mounting to $4.40 for every 30 minutes thereafter, with a daily maximum of $65.
Will tourists pay these rates to get around Denver, where attractions such as the natural history museum, the art museum, the children's museum and amusement parks, along with popular shops and eateries, are fairly spread out? Local officials think they will, if they pick up and drop off bikes frequently so they pay less in fees.
"The bikes make it easy to get around town from one spot to another," said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of VISIT DENVER, a nonprofit association that contracts with the city of Denver in a statement. "You can pick up a bike at the Colorado Convention Center and drop it near the Denver Art Museum. Then, after seeing the museum, you can pick up another bike and ride it to a station near your hotel."
But the long-term popularity of fledgling systems in the U.S. remains to be seen. About 21 months after its debut in Washington D.C., the system there only has 1,500 annual subscribers -- in a city where folks are practiced at taking public transportation.
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